Protein Basics


An oft misunderstood component of food.  When you think of protein, what comes to mind?  Usually people think of meat and muscles.  Many associate protein with animal products, and feel that animal meat must be consumed with almost every meal, especially if you want to gain muscle.

And protein is a wonderful, powerful product!  In fact, proteins got their name from the Greek word proteos, meaning “taking first place,” or “primary” because of its importance in human health.  But there’s more to it than thinking we simply need to eat meat.  Originally when scientists were doing their research and found proteins, before giving it that name, they simply described their find as “animal substance.”   But things took a mysterious twist, when in 1728, scientists found this same “animal substance” in wheat flour. (source)  So, “animal” substance, no more!  It got more intriguing to scientists of that time.

Today, we now know that protein comes from a vast array of food sources, not just animal-based products.

So what are proteins?  They are “biochemical compounds consisting of one or more polypeptides typically folded into a globular or fibrous form, facilitating a biological function.”

Let’s simplify it into an analogy: Proteins are….

Stacks of Legos!

That’s right.  Proteins are made up of smaller “building blocks” called Amino Acids.  Legos come in a multitude of different colors and sizes; Amino Acids come in a multitude of different shapes and sizes as well (and have different names… but we’ll not introduce those here.)  And depending how the amino acids are connected, it will determine what the protein is doing in your body.  Put your building blocks together one way, and you get a little red fire truck.

Put them together another way, and you get a little white house.

Similarly, the way a protein is built will determine its role in your body.

Not all Proteins Are Created Equally.

Depending how amino acids are linked, the resulting proteins have a vast variety of responsibilities in your body:

  • Work in your muscles, connective tissues, hair, skin, and nails; and even heart muscles
  • Produce enzymes and hormones
  • Help build a strong bone matrix
  • Help transport nutrients around your body (via transport proteins and lipoproteins)
  • Make antibodies that help your immune system
  • Maintain proper fluid balance
  • Maintain proper acid-base balance

That’s a lot more than just making big, powerful muscles!

Like individual Lego blocks can be put together in certain ways to make different objects, how your body places Amino Acids together will give you a different result.  And because all of these different TYPES of proteins are made from different arrangements of Amino Acids, it is important to not just get general “protein” in your diet, but to get a variety of protein so you can make sure you’re getting a variety of all the amino acids.  Different food sources have different combinations of amino acids in them.  You don’t want to use only red Lego blocks all the time, or only the 6-peggers!  Variety of size and color in Legos is like the need for different types and sources of protein in your diet.

Can you imagine the many different types of Lego blocks needed for this??

Amino Acids: Gather Up Your Legos!

There are 20 different Amino Acids (individual Lego blocks) that combine in different ways to create the many different proteins to fulfill the many different roles, as stated above.  The average, healthy body can usually make 11 of these 20 amino acids, leaving the other 9  amino acids necessary to get through what you eat or drink.  These are called the “essential” amino acids, because it is essential for you to make sure you get them from your foods.

Have you ever heard of a Complete Protein?  That just means the protein in a single food source is a type that contains ALL 9 of those essential Lego blocks.

Is this important? Well, yes and no. It is important to get all of the 9 Essentials… but it’s not required to get them all in one food item, or even all in one meal. As long as you get good variety regularly, you should be okay.

If you want the ease of complete protein foods, animal products are where most people turn due to popularity (ie: chicken, beef, eggs, fish) – but fear not! You don’t HAVE to get all of your amino acids from the exact same source. There are plenty of plant protein options that may not have all 9 essential amino acids by themselves, but will provide ample building blocks when included in a diverse diet – maybe they only have 1 or 2 of the amino acids, or maybe they have 8.

Keep switching up your foods, and you’ll get them all. These aren’t “complete proteins” but can be mixed and matched for good variety.

  • Hemp seeds (1oz = 160 cal, 10g Pro)
  • Chia Seeds (1oz = 135 cal, 4g Pro)
  • Quinoa (1 cup cooked = 222 cal, 8g Pro)
  • Amaranth (1 cup cooked = 250 cal, 9g pro)
  • Split Peas (1 cup cooked = 230 cal, 16g Pro)
  • Black Eyed Peas (1 cup cooked = 200 cal, 13g Pro)
  • Spirulina (1 oz dried = 80 cal, 16g Pro)
  • Whole grains (brown rice, oats, barley, millet)
  • Beans and Legumes (mung beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, lentils, etc)
  • Nuts and seeds (flax, almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds)
  • Most vegetables have a little bit that add up (Broccoli, kangkong, chard, mustard greens)

While I recommend caution with plant-based diets (they can be done well, but also risk lacking certain nutrients that can only be found in animal-based products), you still can be sure you are getting enough protein even on a vegetarian/vegan diet. Keep switching up your foods, and you’ll get them all.  You can get plenty of protein from non-animal sources, should you choose to do that – even if you want to build muscle and pump iron!

Kenneth Williams – America’s first vegan bodybuilder winner

So get your variety, get your building blocks, and let your food help create the masterpiece of a healthy, growing, and glowing YOU!

Published by Kate Cline, RD

Registered Dietitian with a focus on Gut Health, Inflammation, and Functional Nutrition. Personal Trainer with a focus on corrective exercise. Yoga teacher, traveler, empowerment coach.

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